Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Poor Boy

Finals Week at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater meant three things - the last week of the semester, exams, and unlimited pancakes and coffee at the Student Union. I don't like pancakes or coffee, and I didn't exactly hate taking exams, but it was nice to finally reach the end of the semester. Just in time for burnout. That semester I had Social Psychology, Introduction to Speech Communication, and Introduction to Databases. There was something else but I can't remember.

And then the email came. On the weekend before Finals Week. I was sitting in my dorm room when the phone rang. I answered; it was my second brother in Chicago. I gave him a cheerful hi, but he cut me short by asking me if I had checked my email. I hadn't, so I told him to hang on the line while I logged onto my email account on my PC. I had a new email, it was from my father in Muscat, Oman. There were just two lines. Something about how my eldest brother in Oman had been in a car accident and was being operated on at the hospital for spinal damage. "Please pray to Allah that Irfan's legs are saved," he had written.

I'm a fast reader, and it didn't take me very long to read the email. It made no sense the first couple of seconds. My second brother was still on the phone, waiting for me to finish reading the email. The phone's handset was still next to my ear, held in place between my shoulder and my neck. And then came the emotions. And ugly visions. Of my well-fed, healthy, glowing surgeon brother with his legs cut off. No words came out of my mouth, no words are usually sufficient when your whole body breaks out into a panic. My mouth opened, and a strange wail made its way out. It wasn't a loud cry, it wasn't particularly steady either. It was low-pitched and unattractive. It started soft, then it wavered, and as the panic suddenly started to spread in my stomach, the wail became louder and more terrified. It was almost like pushing down on a car's accelerator, except it's your panic, full-blown terror almost, that's suddenly picking up speed. There's no time for the rest of your body to catch up with the panic. Before your heart can start pounding, before your tears can start secreting, before all that there's a shout that's suddenly shown up in your abdominal cavity that starts forcing its way out through your wind pipe, like a jinn making its way out of the bottle it had been imprisoned in. My brother, who was still waiting on the phone, shouted at me and I suddenly fell silent. I was 19. I had long straight hair, and my child-like face and body had recently started softening and looking woman-like.

A week later, and I was in Muscat. Arranging for travel had not been any trouble, I'd already had a flight booked to return home for the summer anyway. My finals had gone well. I'd been in touch with my family the few days before I'd flown back, and I'd been told that although my brother's spine had been repaired and had not been severed, he was paralysed all the way down from his mid-chest. Paraplegia was what they called it. It was just a word at that point, and everyone was sure that, although the doctors didn't have a cure for the paralysis, my brother would be back on his feet in no time. But, of course.

My first day back in Muscat wasn't too bad. My brother from Chicago had already flown in. He and my father were in and out of the house, and I can't remember where my mother was. Probably at the hospital with my brother. My brother from Chicago took me to the hospital during visiting hours (4-6pm) the second day. It's not like I had never been to hospitals before. Both my parents have had heart problems my whole life, and I've visited them and others at the hospital, even this particular one, before. I'd been around the sick and dying more than usual for someone my age, so I wasn't particularly afraid this time. I was at home now with family and others whom I'd known all my life.

My father and mother were already at the hospital. My brother was in a private room, and my mother would stay there with him. I remember weaving past all the people in the frankincense-smelling corridors of the hospital. Everything in the Middle East smells of frankincense. It can be a startling odour at first, but I'd always been around it, and it comforted me. The hospital was white and very clean. It was the visiting hours, so there were a lot of people around. Mostly Omani and South Asian. A lot of Omani women from the interiors, Bedouin women covered in black from head to toe, a black Batman-like mask keeping their whole faces except their eyes covered. Very unlike their city sisters, who wore fitted black synthetic garments over their usual clothing and kept their beehive hairstyles stylishly covered with a scarf. Their faces were very visible. They wore a lot of makeup to make sure you noticed them. The men wore long white robes with open sandals. The older men carried canes. I've always wondered how these men keep their white robes so clean; they practically glow in their crispness. They keep such nice trimmed beards, it's always so nice to look at. Everyone's feet made soft slapping noises where the floor was marble or short, loud squeaks where the floor was rubber-like. The frankincense of the visitors mixed with the usual disinfected smell of hospitals. My paternal grandfather, who had passed away the year before, had once said that he loved how clean the hospitals were in Oman. He had a good sense of humour, and he had very excitedly remarked that if one had to die anywhere, it would have to be in an Omani hospital. This was a few years before his dementia and strokes had left him unable to speak and partially paralysed. He had died in his bed in our house in Muscat, a shrunken confused old man who recognised almost no one, had to be fed and taken to the bathroom like a baby, and had to be tied down to his bed so that he wouldn't harm himself.

I stood outside the closed door of my brother's private ward. My second brother was with me. He put his hand on the door, and before he pushed it open, he sternly told me to make sure I didn't cry. I thought I could handle it. I had images in my head of my brother in the hospital bed maybe with some plaster and bandages. His legs hadn't had to be amputated, and, aside from the paralysis, had no damage to them.

My brother pushed the ward door open, and we entered the room. Some people were in the room already, all family friends who'd come to visit my brother. My father was in there too. He turned to look at me. I looked at him and then looked around the room. "As-salaam-alaikum," I softly said to everyone. I smiled quietly at them because one has to be polite. The room wasn't huge but it wasn't too small. There was a partition on one side where they had an extra bed for an attendant. A door led to an attached bathroom. A TV was mounted high up on the wall. The few visiting men were with my father on the far side of the room, and the women - mostly their wives - were standing with my mother on the other side of the room. In the middle of the room against one wall was the bed with my eldest brother lying on it on his back. He looked at me, but I don't think he saw me. His body was still in shock, and he was constantly in a tremendous amount of pain, so the doctors kept him doped up with painkillers. He was barely awake most of the time; he had just happened to be awake when I met him. His pale skin looked the same, but his head was bloated and looked like a trapezoid. The top of his scalp looked flat but tilted. His hair had been shaved off because when his car had rolled off of the road down the mountain into the ditch, his head had smashed into the rolled up car window. His scalp had torn open - like a cut-up watermelon in the marketplace, my mother would tell me later - and although it had been stitched back up, there were still bits of glass embedded in the flaps of skin on his scalp. There was a roadmap of cuts and stitches on his scalp, and those cuts had got infected and were oozing pus. He had raccoon eyes, which I later learned happens to people with head injuries. He was wearing a hospital gown and was covered with a pastel blanket, probably green or blue because that hospital has blankets like that.

I never moved from where I had entered the room near the door. I stood there quietly, my polite smile weakly hanging on my face. I looked at the men in that one corner, my father with them with his back turned towards me. I looked at my brother and how ugly and frightening he looked. He was the best of us. He had recently finished med school in India and had been working as a surgeon in Oman for a while. He had cleared his USMLE exams and was planning on going to America for his residency. My parents had started looking for a wife for him. He was the best of us. He was the best of our entire clan's generation. I felt so stupid standing there, my silly smile fading from its edges, my eyes darting back and forth between the men and my brother in his bed. I wanted to see some plasters and some broken bones, I wanted to see the paralysis, but the damage was not like that. It was worse, it was something bigger and something much worse. The damage was to us and everything we were supposed to be, everything life was supposed to have been.

I stepped back out of the ward into the corridor that smelled like frankincense and disinfectant and shut the door. I started to cry, but I wasn't sure why I was crying. I wasn't feeling anything. I think I was frightened at how ugly my brother looked with his mis-shapen swollen head. I think I was wearing a swamp green shalwar suit, but I can't be sure. I remember seeing it as I bent my head down outside the ward and cried but not too loudly because I had been warned against upsetting people with tears. One of the aunties came out to comfort me. Someone else, maybe my mother was with her, I can't remember. I do remember the lady saying something about how sisters are particularly sensitive to their siblings' pain. That was the first time I felt angry at words of comfort. I didn't want to hear her words. I wanted to push her and be cruel to her. I wanted to hurt her, I wanted to be cruel. What did she know. Her words made me feel a physical rage in my little teenage body. I wanted to bury my nails into the sides of her head.

My summer vacation had started. I would spend the mornings with my brother at the ward. I'd brush his teeth for him, feed him breakfast (a cucumber, lettuce, tomato sandwich), and tell him about the headlines in the newspaper. My mother would take over in the afternoons and nights when I would go to a computer class I was taking whose credits I'd transfer back to OSU. The nurses whose faces I never saw because they wore surgical masks (to not infect the infection on my brother's scalp any further) gave him spongebaths in his bed and cleaned out his bedpan and urobags. My brother was sedated most of the time. Sometimes when I'd be lying on the extra bed on the other side of the partition, I'd feel like my brother was about to walk around the partition and laugh and tell me that he'd been joking about the accident and the paralysis the whole time, that the whole episode was over. I thought I heard him walking on the other side of the partition sometimes. But, of course, he wasn't. He couldn't even raise his head an inch because his body was in shock, and he would scream in pain. The doctors had operated on the segment of his spine in the middle of his back, and if you even lightly blew on those stitches on his skin, he would scream.

And so our routine continued. One day my father was sitting on his prayer mat outside the ward in a quiet corner. He had started doing that after prayers, sitting on his prayer mat, thinking. That day he was sitting with his face covered with one hand. I didn't know what to do or what to say. I felt so stupid because I was so young and wasn't able to do anything for anybody. I didn't even know how to drive in those days. So I went and crouched behind my father like a dog who has lost its master and leaned one side of my body against his concave back. I rested my head on his back, hoping that I wouldn't add to his problems and that I was sorry I couldn't contribute to anything like all the real grownups could. I didn't say any of that though, I felt too useless and ashamed.

My father doesn't emote or talk very much. He was quiet as usual, deep in thought. I heard him whimpering, "my poor boy, my poor boy".

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